Tag Archives: Pomarine Skua

5th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. It was cloudy and increasingly blustery today, with winds gusting to 47mph this afternoon, so we spent the day dodging the showers. Still, it was surprising how much we saw despite the weather.

As we drove east along the coast road this morning, we flushed lots of Blackbirds and Chaffinches from the sides of the road. Our first destination was Blakeney, for a quick walk out around the Freshes before the wind picked up later. A couple of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the harbour channel just across from the car park but we could immediately see that one was much paler than the other. A closer look confirmed, one was a Pale-bellied Brent and the other a Dark-bellied Brent Goose.

6o0a7350Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese – a nice comparison

Dark-bellied is the regular form of Brent Goose which winters in large numbers here. This subspecies breeds in arctic Russia. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard west across arctic Canada and winter mainly on the west coast of Scotland and in Ireland. We normally get a handful of Pale-bellied in with the flocks of Dark-bellied Brents here each winter and they occasionally form mixed pairs. Today was a great opportunity to see them side by side.

While we were watching the Brent Geese, we heard a Kingfisher call and looked across the channel to see two Kingfishers chasing each other low over the water. They flew over to our side of the channel and disappeared over the bank towards the Freshes. A little later we saw one of the zip back low across the reeds towards the wildfowl collection. A Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds a little further along.

Further along the seawall, as we got almost to the corner, we turned to look at the Freshes just in time to glimpse a dumpy bird dropping down into the grass on the edge of a flooded depression. We had a pretty good idea what it was, but we couldn’t see it from the seawall or from the path the other side. As we approached for a closer look, a Jack Snipe flew up and shot off towards the harbour – just what we had suspected. In flight, we could really see the small size and the shorter bill compared to a Common Snipe.

We continued on along the north side of the Freshes bank. There were lots of Skylarks down in the short weedy vegetation beyond the fence. A flock of Linnets flew in and dropped down there too briefly. A Rock Pipit flew over calling and landed on the fence, where we could get a good look at it through the scope. Reed Buntings occasionally flew up from the bushes but quickly disappeared back down again. A female Stonechat worked its way along the fence, dropping down onto the side of the bank periodically to look for food.

6o0a7371Stonechat – this lone female was working its way along the fence line

It is very exposed to the elements out on the seawall here. The wind was now starting to pick up and we could see dark clouds coming in towards us over the sea, so we decided to head back to the car. We had a quick look at the wildfowl in the Blakeney collection – none of which were allowed on the bird list for the day of course! We were just settled back in the warmth of the car when we saw two Peregrines over the edge of Friary Hills. A larger adult Peregrine, presumably a female, was chasing a smaller male juvenile – they swooped low over the grass before disappearing behind a hedge, coming out the other side and zooming off over the houses.

With the deterioration in the weather, we decided to head inland to get some respite. There have been some Waxwings in Holt for the last couple of days and as we turned into the road where they have most often been seen we could immediately see several photographers with long lenses pointed up into the trees. Even before we stopped, we could see Waxwings, and we could hear them calling as we got out of the car.

6o0a7387Waxwing – there were at least 20 in Holt today

There were at least 20 Waxwings, but they were hard to count as they were feeding in several different trees, and frequently flying round in small groups or singles. The bulk of the group seemed to keep returning to the top of a large chestnut tree, where they were hard to see among the leaves. From there, they would drop down into several smaller rowans, where they would proceed to wolf down the red berries, much to the annoyance of the local Blackbirds! There was also an apple tree in one of the front gardens by the road, and several of the Waxwings kept coming down to attack the apples, clinging on to them and biting away at the flesh where they had been half eaten already.

6o0a7454Waxwing – feeding on apples, as well as rowan berries

Having feasted ourselves, on such excellent views of such gorgeous looking birds, when the Waxwings flew off and disappeared round behind the buildings, we decided to move on. Our next stop was at Sheringham, where we went for a walk along the sea front.We thought we might pick up some seabirds on our way, but at first it seemed a little quiet, apart from hordes of Turnstones around the fishing boats which had been hauled up the slipway.

6o0a7525Turnstone – lots along the prom at Sheringham

There was no sign of any Purple Sandpipers on their usual favourite rocks below the pub, but when we got to the shelter at the east end of the prom, we could see first one and then two Purple Sandpipers distantly out on the sea defences.

We stopped to talk to another couple of local birders who told us that the movement of seabirds was just picking up, after the wind had strengthened. A line of Common Scoter flew past with a single Tufted Duck in amongst them. A steady stream of Gannets tacked across the wind, heading east offshore, both white adults and dark grey-brown juveniles. There were little groups of Guillemots zooming across and a couple of Red-throated Divers went past too.Then a few Great Skuas started to pass by – in the half hour we stood there sheltering from the wind, we saw about ten – but they were all rather distant and hard to get everyone onto. A single juvenile Pomarine Skua was even further offshore.

As a particularly fierce squall blew in off the sea, we took shelter until it passed. Perhaps prompted by a Sanderling which came in with them, the two Purple Sandpipers took off and flew towards us, passing by and heading back to the rocks below the pub. We waited until the rain had stopped and decided to walk back to look for them. Unfortunately, by that stage they had disappeared again. We did find a couple of Ringed Plovers which had probably stopped off with the Turnstones to sit out the wind.

6o0a7527Ringed Plover – stopped off with the Turnstones on the slipway

After lunch and a welcome hot drink back along the coast road at Cley, we drove round to Iron Road and headed down along Attenborough’s Way. There was a nice flock of Brent Geese out on the grazing meadows (all Dark-bellieds), and as well as the plain backed adults we could see quite a few stripe-backed juveniles. Hopefully, as the Brent Goose numbers increase over the coming weeks, it will prove to have been a good breeding season for them this year.

6o0a7537Brent Geese – adults & juveniles on the grazing marshes

Round at Babcock Hide, the wind was now whistling across the marshes. A little flock of Dunlin were feeding down at the front of the scrape below the hide, but they were very skittish and kept whirling round before dropping back down again. A pair of Redshank were defending their feeding territory in front of the hide, chasing off any others which tried to land there.

First one Black-tailed Godwit dropped in, then another five, stopping to feed for a few minutes before flying off again, flashing their boldly marked black and white wings. A couple of little groups of Lapwing flew in from the east and stopped to rest for a minute or two on the islands.

None of the waders would settle, in part because there were a couple of Marsh Harriers about. First, a dark juvenile flew across the reeds at the back of the pool, and drifted off towards Salthouse. Then a young male Marsh Harrier, with paler underwings and small patches of paler grey emerging on its upperwings, did the same. As they came over the grazing marshes, all the Wigeon shot out into the middle of the water from the banks. There were a few Teal and Mallard with them and three Shoveler appeared from behind the reeds too.

When a particularly dark cloud had passed over, we returned to the car and drove back round to the main part of the reserve. Just as we set out to walk to the hides, it started to rain so we hurried out along the boardwalk – thankfully it was only light rain and we got out there without getting wet.

There were several Shelduck out on Pat’s Pool and  huddle of gulls out beyond the first island. A few Teal were out on one of the further islands, but there were not many waders – three Dunlin at the back and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits roosting in with the gulls. Simmond’s Scrape held more wildfowl – a larger flock of Wigeon, a good number of Teal and a huddle of around 20 Pintail asleep behind one of the islands. Presumably the waders had gone elsewhere in search of food and shelter. A Common Snipe was feeding on the bank outside Dauke’s Hide but flew across and landed down behind the grass in front of Teal Hide where we couldn’t see it.

A couple more Marsh Harriers quartered the reedbed beyond the scrapes this side. The light was starting to fade already and they were presumably gathering before going to roost. Several Pied Wagtails flew past while we watched, some of them dropping in to the islands briefly, before continuing on their way heading off to roost.

6o0a7562Marsh Harrier – gathering over the reeds before going to roost

Turning our attention to the gulls, we could immediately see a good selection of different species – Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. One of the herring gull-types looked different – it was very white-headed, whereas Herring Gulls typically have lots of grey blotches around the head at this time of year. Against the white head, the beady black eye really stood out – the nearby Herring Gulls instead showing a very pale iris. It was  an adult Caspian Gull.

img_8262Caspian Gull – this adult was hunkered down against the wind on Pat’s Pool

The Caspian Gull was hunkered down against the wind and didn’t initially look as long-billed and long-faced as they usually do. It kept returning to a little patch of cut rushes, behind which it tried to crouch down and shelter. However, the mantle was noticeably half a shade darker than the nearby Herring Gulls. Eventually, the Caspian Gull walked up onto the island and started preening, and now finally we could see the distinctive long head and bill.

Cley in the late evening is normally a good place to see different gulls gathering before they go to roost, but the Caspian Gulls often come in very late, just as it is getting dark, so we were lucky this one had arrived nice and early today. When some of the gulls flew across to Simmond’s Scrape, we turned to look there and found an adult Yellow-legged Gull to add to the day’s gull list. It was with a Lesser and a Great Black-backed Gull, giving a good comparison in mantle tone – it was noticeably much darker grey than the Herring Gulls but paler and less slatey than the Lesser Black-backeds.

At first, the Yellow-legged Gull was up to its belly in the water but eventually it climbed out onto the mud and we could finally see its deep yellow legs. The light was starting to fade now, and consequently they might not have appeared as bright to the unitiated as they otherwise would have done. It was time to call it a day, but it had been a nice way to end with such a good selection of gulls gathering.

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13th October 2015 – Full of Eastern Promise

Another Autumn Tour today. With winds from the east, it has been very exciting here in recent days, so we set out to catch up on a few of the recent attractions and check out if there had been any new arrivals.

We started at Stiffkey, with the intention of walking west from Greenway towards Warham Greens. With the wind veering NE and picking up, with cloud and rain, it felt like there might have been some new birds in overnight. The coastal hedges here seemed like a good place to look.

It was very exposed out along the edge of the saltmarsh, with the wind gusting over 30mph, and at first the bushes seemed rather quiet. We scanned the saltmarsh as we walked – there were plenty of Brent Geese in now, feeding on the eel grass, plus lots of Curlew and Redshank and several Little Egrets. A couple of Marsh Harriers were out quartering the saltmarsh.

P1110513Brent Geese – when they first arrive, they all like to feed on the saltmarshes

We could hear a couple of Goldcrests calling from the bushes, but couldn’t see them at first. They were obviously keeping down out of the wind. Then we came across a flock of Long-tailed Tits and two Goldcrests with them were more obliging. Still, there didn’t seem as many here as in recent days.  We flushed a few Song Thrushes from the hedges as we walked, and a Redwing, but there was nothing to suggest any significant numbers had come in overnight. We were making our way back when a red tail flicked over a bush by the path and disappeared – presumably a Redstart, although it didn’t show itself again. As we stood and waited to see if it might reappear, a Blackcap hopped up to feed on the blackberries.

P1110499Blackcap – feeding on blackberries

We had a quick look in campsite wood – and the place was absolutely alive with Goldcrests. We stopped to watch them dropping down out of the trees into the bushes out on the campsite to feed, then zooming back up into the trees again. There had been a report of a couple of Firecrests further along, in some trees on the edge of the campsite, but all the crests had moved on by the time we got there. While it was amazing to watch all the Goldcrests feeding feverishly, it was a struggle to see the birds in the canopy of the wood itself. Eventually, we decided to move on.

We made our way east along the coast to Beeston Common. There has been an Isabelline Shrike here for a couple of days already, and it has been a real performer. It was on form again today – perched high in the top of a hawthorn as we arrived, for all to see. We watched it in the scope for a while, then it set off on  a sally out across the common, catching a bee and taking it back to the bush to incapacitate and then eat it.

IMG_1976Isabelline Shrike – showing well at Beeston Common

It flew around several times, moving between bushes, looking around all the time for prey. Even when it started to rain lightly at one point, it still sat up in the bushes. It was great to watch. Some video of it from yesterday is below.

After that crowd-pleasing performance, we had a short walk over the common to see what else we could see. There has been a Yellow-browed Warbler or two here in recent days, but we couldn’t find the tit flock today – it was just a bit too windy out there. We decided to head back to the car.

We drove to Cley and, after a stop at the Visitor Centre, we drove round to the beach car park. The morning had already gone, so we ate our lunch in the beach shelter out of the wind. While we were eating, we kept one eye on the sea. Seawatching can always produce interesting birds, with a decent onshore wind. There were plenty of Gannets going past today, adults with black-tipped white wings and lots of slaty-grey juveniles. And a steady stream of little groups of auks – mostly Guillemots, but we also picked up several blunt-billed Razorbills too.

P1110527Gannet – one of the many juveniles past today

While we were eating, the vigilence paid off. We picked up a distant Sooty Shearwater flying past, alternately arcing up high over the sea and dipping down to skim low over the waves. We could see its dark underparts, ruling out the commoner Manx Shearwater. After we had finished eating and suitably emboldened by the shearwater, we decided to move round to the side of the shelter to have a more concerted effort at seawatching.

It certainly paid off! Next up, another Sooty Shearwater came past, much closer this time, giving us all a great view. Then a skua appeared low over the sea to our left, heading our way. We got it in the scope and could see that it was a Pomarine Skua and a super smart adult to boot. As it came past we could even see the ‘spoons’ – the elongated, spatulate central tail feathers which project out the back, characteristic of the species. Stunning! Then another shearwater appeared, a bit further out and this time keeping very low over the sea. It was fairly dark again, but shorter winged and dumpier than the Sooty. It was a Balearic Shearwater from the Mediterranean. To round things off nicely, a Great Skua flew past us next – big, bulky & dark, with steady and deliberate wingbeats. We hadn’t intended to seatwatch today, and only gave it about half an hour, so this was an amazing return. If only every day seawatching could be as good as this!!

There was still no real sense of any major new influx of passerines on the wind, so we decided to make our way back to Holkham to try to catch up with the star bird there – a Red-flanked Bluetail which had been found lurking in some dense sallows yesterday. We parked at Lady Anne’s Drive and made our way west along the inner edge of the pines. We were serenaded by the yelping of Pink-footed Geese as we walking. At Salts Hole, we stopped to admire the Little Grebes. At least 5 today, there was lots of territorial chasing going on and lots of maniacal laughter.

P1110536Little Grebe – one of the pairs at Salts Hole

A little further along, we heard a Marsh Tit calling. We could see it moving around in the low elm suckers alongside the path. It was fascinating to watch – it pulled a dried leaf from one of the trees and took it to a nearby perch, where it starting pecking at the leaf violently. It gradually became clear that the leaf was curled over and after a second or two the Marsh Tit pulled out a caterpillar. It had obviously cocooned itself into a leaf, but the Marsh Tit had realised it was hiding in there and had taken the leaf off to extract it. Very clever.

We detoured up the boardwalk by Washington Hide. The trees here can be very good for birds, but it was just too exposed and gusty there today and they were quiet, apart from yet more Goldcrests. We stopped to look at a small party of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. In the bushes down on the edge of the reedbed, several Redwings were feeding on berries. A Sparrowhawk flew in and landed in a hawthorn, looking round hungrily.

The pool in front of Washington Hide was fairly empty today, and we were just walking back down the boardwalk when a large white shape started to take off from one of the ditches just to the east. The Great White Egret had obviously been hiding in there, out of view, today. We watched it fly across and then drop down into another ditch further over, out of view again.

P1110546Great White Egret – flying between ditches this afternoon

We continued our way west, stopping occasionally to watch the tit flocks or the Goldcrests coming down to bathe in a puddle. A very white Common Buzzard has returned to the bushes over by the church – it was there last winter and was causing some confusion again today.

There is always lots to see here, but we had really come hoping to see the Red-flanked Bluetail and time was getting on, so we made our way to the trees where it had been showing. We hadn’t been there long, when it suddenly appeared from the sallows behind and started to feed on the brambles. We could see the bright blue tail as it flicked around on the bushes, and the deep orange flank patches. Once an almost mythical rare visitor here, they are now turning up more often, but are still an absolute delight to see.

P1110554Red-flanked Bluetail – a record shot in poor light this afternoon

It has been hassled repeatedly by the local Robins and obviously didn’t fancy spending too long out in the open, so darted back into the sallows. Having seen it so easily, we hung around a short while to see if we could see it again. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. However, while we were waiting we did hear a Yellow-browed Warbler calling loudly from the sallows. When a bird appeared on the edge of the sallows immediately after, we thought that would be it – but it turned out to be a Firecrest instead. It didn’t stay long and disappeared back into the bushes.

We didn’t have time to linger too long, so set off back to the car. We still had time for one last bird – on our way back, another Firecrest had been seen in the holm oaks beside the path. We arrived just in time to see it flicking around amongst the branches, before it suddenly darted out and disappeared into the trees behind.

It was time to call it a day, but it had been a great Autumn day out – with some top quality rare visitors and a classic seawatching session in the middle!